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Spring Forward with a Garden Tour

Visiting a botanical garden can brighten up any trip.

The U.S. has paid homage to its natural environments since its founding, from formal gardens built next to great manor houses to public and private gardens that preserve native flora and fauna. Here are some gardens across the country that are spectacular no matter the time of year.

Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens

San Marino, California

In 2019, the Huntington Library celebrated the centennial of Henry and Arabella Huntington’s giving of their estate to the public as a private research and educational institution. The bequest included 207 acres with 16 formal gardens, two art galleries and a library with three exhibition halls.

The botanical gardens encompass about 130 acres of the property. Between 1906 and 1927, William Hertrich designed the lily ponds and many of the themed gardens, including the desert, subtropical, palm, camellia and Japanese gardens. During the past 15 years, additional acres were planted, with a Chinese garden called Liu Fang Yuan, or “the Garden of Flowing Fragrance.” It resembles a Suzhou scholar’s garden with pavilions, interesting rocks shipped from China, and flowers and plants with literary or cultural significance. It is the largest Chinese garden outside mainland China and is connected to the 110-year-old Japanese Garden, which recently underwent a major renovation.

The Rose Garden Tea Room was also expanded to make room for larger groups. The Huntington offers an audio tour of its outdoor garden sculptures that range from classical to contemporary. There’s also a Chinese Garden audio tour that takes groups on an exploration of the 15-acre garden, which boasts a 1.5-acre lake, pavilions, a canyon waterfall, hand-carved stone bridges and beautiful buildings. Groups of 10 or more people can take a private, one-hour guided estate tour or a 90-minute garden tour. Tours of the Japanese gardens are also available with a reservation.

huntington.org

Botanica

Wichita, Kansas

Botanica, which opened in 1987, is a 17-acre cultivated garden originally founded by a group of garden clubs and the city of Wichita, Kansas. For several years, the garden was just flowers and shrubs, but 10 years ago, it opened the Downing Children’s Garden, which is fun for both adults and kids. Groups enter the garden through a rainbow and then follow a yellow stem path to a tiled sunflower fountain, a farm area, a bee house with a demonstration beehive and a pollywog pond.

Boeing Monster Woods has crafted tree structures and Granny Jean’s Treehouse, a hollowed-out tree in which children can climb and play. Botanica has 30 themed gardens as well as the Chinese Garden of Friendship, which is a tribute to Wichita’s sister city, Kaifeng and resembles a scholar garden. One half of the garden features the earthly world where people live and work; the other half depicts the heavenly world, with a waterfall, a pond, a stream, the Thousand-Foot Bridge and pavilions where scholars would meditate. 

Guided garden tours are available that point out unique aspects of the different gardens and explain the history of the gardens and how they got started. A catered box lunch can be added on with advance request. The Botanica Carousel Experience is a behind-the-scenes tour of the former Joyland Carousel restoration project that ends with a ride on the refurbished Khicha Family Carousel. A great lawn with a large stage was built near the carousel to host concerts and special events.

botanica.org

Bellingrath Gardens and Home

Theodore, Alabama

Bellingrath Gardens and Home was built by Walter Bellingrath, an entrepreneur who owned the local Coca-Cola Bottling Company franchise in Mobile, Alabama, and his wife, Bessie, on about 900 acres along the Fowl River. Bessie Bellingrath was a gardener and started the formal gardens on the property in 1927, but it wasn’t until 1932 that the gardens were opened to the public. 

The 65-acre gardens and 10,000-square-foot home are both open for tours. The home is preserved as it was when Walter Bellingrath died in 1955. The couple didn’t have children, so all of their collections remain intact. 

The gardens are known for their seasonal flower displays; they include more than 250,000 vibrant azaleas in the spring and cascading chrysanthemums in the fall. Its magic Christmas in Lights display is a major draw during the holidays. 

Like many European gardens, there is a formal walkway bordered by a small stream that leads visitors to a mermaid fountain. The 3-acre Mirror Lake is surrounded by shrubs, live oak trees and beautiful views. The Rose Garden, built in 1936 in the shape of the Rotary Club emblem, was planted as a tribute to the club’s ideals and contains more than 2,000 plants from 36 varieties. A small conservatory features tropical plants. In 1960, the board decided to build the Asian-American Garden, which has some Japanese and Chinese elements.

Tours of the gardens are self-guided, but the home is open for group tours. Interested groups can add on a lunch in the cafe if they book in advance. 

bellingrath.org

Longwood Gardens

Kennett Square, Pennsylvania

Longwood Gardens, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, is the former estate of Pierre du Pont, who bought the property in 1906 to save it from the loggers. Many of the estate’s beautiful old-growth trees were planted in the 1700s and 1800s, and the property was a well-known arboretum and local gathering place.

Until his death in 1954, du Pont built many of the attractions and gardens that are well loved today. The Open Air Theatre, which opened in 1914, is still used for outdoor concerts and events. The conservatory, built in 1921, housed an unheard-of 4 acres of plants under glass. In 1931, du Pont built the Main Fountain Garden, which was restored in 2017 and features illuminated fountain performances set to music. 

The 1,100-acre property has more fountains than any other garden in the U.S., as du Pont loved the sound of running water and fountains and the technology behind them. The Italian Water Garden, with its green grass and blue-tiled fountains, was inspired by du Pont’s visit to Villa Gamberaia, near Florence, Italy. The property has a meadow garden, a rose garden, water lilies and a flower garden walk. Peirce’s Park is what’s left of the nation’s first collection of trees. 

The west end of the conservatory is being renovated, and the gardens recently added a restaurant and a beer garden. 

The Longwood Story Tour explores seasonal highlights of the property’s diverse gardens, and the guide educates visitors about the history of the property. 

longwoodgardens.org

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Tucson, Arizona

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson celebrates the plants and animals that make the Sonoran Desert their home. 

The Cactus Garden and the Agave Garden are the most popular with visitors because, between February and April, they explode with color, from deep purples to bright pinks and yellows. There’s a labyrinth where visitors can get lost as well as mountain woodland, desert grasslands, a tropical deciduous forest and pollination gardens. If visiting groups don’t like looking at plants, the museum has a zoo, an art gallery, a natural history museum, an aquarium and a conservation center.

The zoo features species that are native to the Sonoran Desert, such as mountain lions, black bears, Mexican gray wolves, javelinas, coyotes, snakes and tarantulas. The Hummingbird Aviary and Birds of the Sonoran Desert exhibit allows visitors to see these winged wonders in flight. Stingrays and freshwater and saltwater fish make their home in the Warden Aquarium. Many of the saltwater varieties come from the Gulf of California, which abuts the Sonoran Desert. 

The Natural History Museum has a human-made cave with trails to explore, where visitors learn about bats and other animals that live underground. The Art Institute connects nature and art and has two exhibits that rotate throughout the year. The conservation center works on many projects, including invasive species, native bees and pollinators.

desertmuseum.org

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